A few weeks back, awesome mentor, friend, inspiration and poet, Bao Phi, hit me up to contribute to his blog series on Minneapolis’ Star Tribune. Bao is one of the most modest people I know–so he won’t tell you that he is one of the most renowned poets in America right now, a pioneer in the Asian American activist and spoken word community and definitely an icon in the Vietnamese American community (I try to be in all three spheres which makes me a major idolizer).
Bao is a TWO TIME Minnesota Grand Poetry Slam champ, TWO TIME poetry slam champ at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York, the first Vietnamese American man to have appeared on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, a National Poetry Slam Individual Finalist (where he placed 6th overall out of over 250 national slam poets) and he has a poem published in the 2006 Best American Poetry Anthology…and he has time to be friend…and a mentor…and a dedicated community activist and organizer…and more recently a proud father and partner…and…am I leaving anything out? Most likely I am. Just try Googling him and you’ll see how much I failed to mention here.
I remember when I was just a teenage twerp doing teenage twerp poems, and Bao was one of those people who took the time to reach out to me. At the time, I didn’t know why such a celebrity status poet made the effort to guide me (I still don’t), but I can honestly say it has been one of the most meaningful relationships in my growth as an artist, writer and Vietnamese American. I’ll just fast forward to the point of this post now. Bao asked me (and several others) to write a response to “My First Protest: Asian Americans and Activism” for his blog series. He recently posted it online. Now I thought I’d share the piece I submitted:
My first protest came in the form of standing on my high school auditorium’s stage in front of several hundred people, delivering a poem by I Was Born With Two Tongues called, “Excuse Me, AmeriKKKa”. I went to a wannabe-prestigious-snooty-attitude public high school called Boston Latin School (BLS)—also known as the first public school in America, also known as the alma mater of Benjamin Franklin, also known as the school that drives kids crazy—literally. There was a tradition at BLS called Public Declamation—established as a custom to build public speaking skills via the works of old white men such as Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Socrates, Thomas Jefferson and other such figures to instill us with the “time-honored tales of values and wisdom”. During quarterly Public Declamations, every class was forced to sit in the auditorium and listen to recycled speeches surrounding the same topics such as slavery, emancipation, THIS GREAT NATION, manifest destiny and fancy colloquialisms about expansion (and the conquer everything mentality). Month after month, the performances started to feel like an incredibly outdated sermon on loop. I felt a sense of deceit and trickery in the conspiracy to ingrain Western colonial philosophies and the oppressive rhetoric of white legacy by means of a public speaking façade; the system had implemented a way to filter orthodox ideas through fresh faces and young voices of my own generation. As great as my fear of the stage was, I could not bare to sit in the auditorium seat any longer and be forced to listen to the voices of old white men coming out of the mouths of my oblivious young peers. Shoot, if people were being forced to miss class and listen to a bunch of dumb teenagers yap, then I wanted to make people listen to the Asian American experience. So I tried out for Public Declamation.
If you know the poem, “Excuse Me, AmeriKKKa”, then you can imagine how uncomfortable that auditorium got. If you’ve never heard of the poem before, then this post is missing the real punch-in-the-gut hit behind the thesis. The poem is a direct address to white “Amerika” illustrating vivid and historical indictments of racism, sexism, colonialism and oppression–content so fearlessly explicit it even failed to meet the Strib’s blog-friendly publication regulations (no lie!). It is the kind of poem to induce nervous eye-widening “Did she just say that???” reactions. Best of all, “Excuse Me, Amerikka” is a poem for the pumping fist and double middle fingers waving defiantly in the air.
I must admit, looking back at these lines and the look of horror it put on every teenage twerp’s face, makes for a hilarious memory. Teachers and advisors absolutely hated the idea of me performing this piece. They tried convincing me to do Shakespeare instead. They felt I was tarnishing the image and reputation of a classical tradition. They did everything they could to keep me off that stage. But I resisted. And eventually they ran out of arguments to justify their stance. So there I was. The quiet fifteen year old Vietnamese girl all the teachers thought were so sweet and innocent (because she always handed in her homework on time) taking the stage to drop some F bombs and scream about how messed up Amerikkka is to a bunch of juvenile dirtbags and pink flamingo owners. I soon became known as the “Angry Asian Girl” which interestingly made the Asian kids like me more, the white kids kiss up to me and the teachers plain confused.
CHECK OUT HIS BLOG AND MORE STORIES ON THIS SERIES HERE.